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I Lie to Myself : Hidden Values Distorting Self-Assessment

There are times when we face some new situations, situations which we have never heard of before, situations which are completely novel to us, situations which doesn’t fit into any patterns what we have ever seen, heard or even thought about. Now facing them what you, I or anyone will probably do? Probably we will stop the chaotic halo in our mind, think for some moments and then will take a decision based on facts explored through our intelligence. In between we may also doubt our competence while taking decision since solution wasn’t and still isn’t obvious to us. But what would have had happened, had there been some patterns which we, as company, recruiters, parents would have been able to understand? Life would have been easier, had we had that small hint more often. Or is it so? But are seriously able to understand small hints or do we invent them? Do we seriously intuitively understand patterns around us or do we make assumptions?

As per Duncan J. Watts (2011), sociologist & scientist, our reasoning from common sense and our past history together create arguments in our minds that mislead us into believing that we understand more about the world of human behavior including self than we do. A small story shall clarify this amply. Once upon a time a man approached hermit who was said to have attained God-realization. Man asked hermit to help him achieve God Realization too. Hermit agreed with one condition that Man would try to see God in everything. After some months Hermit & Man visited nearby town. While wandering in market, they noticed a sudden commotion. It was then informed by frightened people that a huge African Elephant has gone mad in market centre & was attacking anyone in sight. And then suddenly Hermit & Man saw this huge elephant rushing in their direction, trampling people coming in its way. Hermit ran and hid nearby. But Man had an unexpected realization and he stood his ground. A fruit-seller while running away shouted “run away”, but Man responded “I need not, he is God-Elephant”. After a while a barber ran from nearby and advised “run away”, but Man responded “I need not, he is God-Elephant”. Finally Hermit came out of his hiding place and advised man “Hide with me”, but Man responded again “I need not, he is God-Elephant”. Within minutes Elephant came in front of man, slammed the Man with his trunk, tramped Man’s body & ran off elsewhere. When hermit reached Man again, he was asked by Man: “You useless Hermit! Why did your God punish me even when I saw him everywhere? I saw God in elephant”. Hermit answered “Dear Man! You saw God-elephant, but did you hear what God-fruitseller, God-barber and God-Hermit told you to do?” Man is a socio-economic animal and it is theorized that a man will always take decisions that are rational and are in his interest. I’m not so sure of that, especially having witnessed that only a few of us are lucky enough to get a wakeup call before an African Elephant mauls us. It so happens that at times, even when armed with facts, we tend to make decisions that are simply stupid. Dot-com boom, Economic bubbles, Tulipomania, Sub-Prime Crisis and other neighbourhood news forced me to accept that human beings even when are given best available facts, shall see it by Bounded Rationality (i.e. limits of our intelligence tends to distort our understanding of facts).

Consequently it then also can be argued that people with acceptable common sense levels shall take decisions which shall be in conformity with their value system and not as per their intelligence system. That is we cannot easily perceive the difference between what we intend to do and what we finally end up doing. Making understanding of people more predictable or prediction of this difference of what we perceive ‘we will do’ versus ‘what we actually do’ in situations is what has been goal of any psychological assessment test. More and more Organizations have been trying to figure out best way to judge potential of a candidate including psychological temperament. Malcolm Gladwell so rightly points out in his New Yorker article that the Assessment Centers makes behavioral predictions which are solid & specific prediction for its people. Problem is that people are least predictable in crisis situation and crisis is where such prediction would have been most useful. (Gladwell, 2004) As per Dr. Timothy Wilson (2002) personality of our brain is not very much known to its user that is us. What we know is our own self-identity, which we create with our conscious choices. Our brain is always on work of making sense of data given to it by our senses.

Brain does so by evaluation, pattern-making, remembering past experiences. The Brain since has always been doing that, therefore develops a particular personality of itself based initially on genes & environment and later on with variables of life experiences. Behind Conscious Choices: In our own self-interest as professionals and as individuals the real question boils down to ‘in any situation, especially crisis, do we actually take decisions as per rationality or as per our unconscious ‘belief sets, pattern analyzing, impulses’ replacing rationality altogether?’ Oxford Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2005) defines Rationale as ‘reasons which explain a decision, course of action’. On the other hand belief set or pattern analyzing or impulses or Value System of an individual is a bit more complex to define. As per Kluckhohn, Value is conception, explicit or implicit, distinctive of an individual or characteristic of a group, of the desirable which influences the selection from available modes, means and ends of action (Kluckhohn, 1951). Milton Rokeach (1968, 1973) did even a better job of defining categories of Values in 2 categories: 1) Terminal Values: Desirable end results of any existence, 2) Instrumental Values: Preferred modes of behavior for attaining terminal values. Based on works above two Researchers, Schwartz (1992, 1994) came up with findings that Value System itself is dynamic and the relationship between desired results and means to achieve such results is prioritized as per importance. This is something common people know instinctively.

One of the important works in individual values was done by R M Williams (1979). He found that values influence behavior, therefore he considered values as abstract set of principles guiding principles and these principles were mostly insulated from minor day to day changes. Williams also found that even sudden change in society or culture does not cause immediate change in value system but only a gradual shift. Basing my understanding on the above concepts we can define Value System as a ‘not so easily malleable set of beliefs which guide our attitude towards any desired result’. Characteristics of a Value System are as follows: a. Value System always works with a secondary support of reasoning, which may at times lead to change in Value System but by itself Reasoning is always secondary. b. Contradictory beliefs also have a place in value system and they exist with accepted beliefs simultaneously. It is only importance of desired result that determines priority of contradictory beliefs. Reasoning & experience is what prioritizes belief sets. c. Priority of contradictory value is not always evident even to human being himself, till Value System is put to test. That, above mentioned definition, that value system is not evident till there are some testing situations (crisis), is what explains last minute courage as well as last minute cowardice, or why people behave differently when given power or put under stress. Implication of hidden Values on Psychological Tests: While going through one of the psychological assessment tests I had a realization that more I am aware of understanding myself, more variations I see in my results. Not only have my test variations differed on my self-understanding, but they have also differed on my mental state at the time of giving any assessment test. Whereas tests like TAT or Ink Bloat have subjective & open-ended response requirements, for majority of other assessment tests, basic response recording tool, is to give choices and record choices. Now analogically in real world also, people live a life wherein they get some choices, make a few choices and then live with those choices (or are forced to live with those choices).

Our past-experiences become actually a memorized summation of our earlier choices i.e. during our life each choice gave something to us and took something from us, thereby shaping our character. Now a fundamental aspect of why any Assessment test can be farther from reality is that in any psychological assessment test one does not have to live with the choices one makes therefore actually our Value System has not been tested yet. Making idealized choice in assessment is always easier than to live with the choice for an extended period of time. Taking a decision is easier in an assessment test i.e. by clicking an idealized choice than when we are in reality of real-time drudgery. It can be argued that human being will act as per his belief set given the nature of situation, and therefore more emotionally involved a person is in a situation there are more chances that self-rated Value System and evident behavior will differ. Studies have also shown that Self-rating is always less reliable than ratings by peer, boss or subordinates (Mount 1998, Campbell 1988, Conway 1997). Even though some researchers did have better experiences in getting self-rating closer to average perception by modifying rating mediums, but final conclusion was that self-rating is always less reliable than average rating scores given by others. But why self-ratings are less reliable or to put this question in a simpler form that is why there is difference between what I believe and what I finally do? Basically each human being is a individual with a unique thinking pattern. Even though we have access to same facts, differentiates it all is our perspective. Consider an age old phrase: an event happens; in the event some incidences unfold; these varied incidences form basis of some facts. Now comes more interesting part: Facts of any event remains same but reactions of people to same facts create different opinions. i.e. people have different perspectives. So, what is Perspective? Value gives rise to Perspective: Experience permeated through value system brings perspective or simply put Perspective is a way of looking at things. Our way of looking at things will always be determined by our Value System (foundation) and Situation (current experience). That means a perspective is always a product of a Set of Beliefs and an Ongoing Change. Perspective represents our lenses of deeply held beliefs. Hoping not to disturb childlike faith of many, following research brought forward a thought provoking finding.

Dr. Persinger conducted an experiment where his subjects wore a specially built helmet. This helmet’s function was to artificially stimulate subject's temporal lobes by generating weak magnetic fields. It was found that people who were given electromagnetic radiation on specific parts of brain experienced extra sensory phenomenon, by feeling "an ethereal presence in the room" commonly labeled as “experience with God”. Since human brain working can also be categorized electro-chemical reaction, any events as such, keep on giving feedback to our senses. If these experiences are common then we accept them as they are. And if these experiences are bizarre or are anomalies then we may also happen to give them more exotic names like psychic powers, talking with God, etc. If a designed helmet can induce such an extra sensory phenomenon then one should be more wary of complete reliability on our external senses and dependent belief system thereby our Value System. The above experiment showed that our perception is not always the reality but simply our interpretation of the facts. So difference between our thinking and our action differs primarily because one’s Value System i.e. deeply held beliefs are yet to be tested with Experience. Without this experience one’s perspective is primarily driven by what one believes is a right belief or interprets facts. Only when one has new experience he will gain new perspective and more insights for himself. Our Own Little Research: To test if there is a difference between what people think their value is and how people act when situation confronts their perceived value, we conducted a small experiment on the hypothesis that people do not know that how their own value system reacts on a situation. We wanted to find out whether any difference exists between what one perceives to be one’s value in an idealized assessment and one’s corresponding action in more complex situation. Simply put we wanted to find out whether people are aware of what they intend to do versus what they will actually do in situations. We gave people options for choosing what they believe to be their idealized values.

We subsequently put them in situations where idealized values were not apparent and recorded their responses. Hypothesis Our Hypothesises are as follows: Ho1: People are completely attuned with the choices they make as per their value system. Hao2: People are not completely attuned with their choices as per their value system. Methodology: Primary data was collected through a Questionnaire which contained Subjective as well as objective questionnaires (Annexure: A). Design of questionnaire was deliberated to keep Design & Response Bias of questionnaire at the minimum. We included items which are not linked with our research theme so as to compel respondents to keep an open mind. We tested for presence and adherence to the following values: 1) Idealized Value of being fair and just by following just process & granting fairness in decisions. 2) Idealized value of being tolerant to other people who are different from us. 3) Idealized value of preferring relationship over result. And We Found That On analysing the data and numbers we found some interesting observations: • 84% respondents said that they’ll not betray friends. However 81% of these respondents when confronted with a complex situation chose to stand by results, thereby sacrificing relationships, especially when options did not contain any clue that any option could have a tangible benefit. • 73% of people who opted for truth manipulation for saving a relationship had actually stood for fair & just process even ignoring promise of their own personal gratifications, when no relationship was at stake. That is people did sacrifice their values for others, even when they didn’t do it for themselves. • 4 out of 6 people, who stood to fair & just process, actually made opposite decisions. That is when moment of decision came, implied values did not work and it changed to preference to results instead of acceptance. • 7 out of 11 people who showed no inclination to conducting a fair process by judging earlier finally changed their stance to fair process when confronted in situation. The results were interesting in terms of how people react in real life despite what psychological assessments indicate otherwise. However we were surprised that at times people were willing to change their values not for themselves but to save relationships important to them. From above results we can be sure that a person doesn’t necessarily understand the strength of tolerance of opposition on his perceived value system. Suffice to argue that when people are making final decisions then some subconscious perspectives within play an important role in those final moments. Recommendations: It is always easy to do the ever-green fault finding. Finding faults with Psychological assessments is the easier part. Difficult part is to create an instrument which is more reliable and validated for predicting behaviour.

Experiment conducted for this research could be extended as longitudinal experiment, to assess actual decision makings during the lifetime of the individual. But before any recommendations can be given, one may want to remember words of L.J.J. Wittgenstein, “Values. A terrible business. You can at best stammer when you talk about them.” Recommendations for an Individual for getting better results from Assessment Tests: 1) Value your tacit knowledge: Tacit knowledge is the knowledge which at times cannot be made explicit. E.g. how we walk is example of tacit knowledge, where we keep on taking steps but never consciously calculate how to take each step. Instead we just do it on instinct or some neural systems working in our brains. Similarly one must understand that there are many ideologies in our belief systems where we just act instead of calculating our reactions each time. 2) You and every fortress have weakness: All human beings have emotionally vulnerable points. Some have more than others, and some doesn’t seem to have it at all. Whereas some people can be emotionally attached to how their job designation sounds, some other people feel warmth only for the cash their position offers. According to Robert Greene (2000), everyone has a weakness, a gap in his castle wall. That weakness is usually insecurity, an uncontrollable emotion or need; it can also be a small secret pleasure. A thumbscrew is a component of any machinery which when misaligned, will make whole machinery useless. One must understand that one will always have emotional thumbscrews where one is weaker than his original self as whole.

One should remain aware of where one is most gullible so as to make better decisions when call of action arrives. 3) Seek feedback for your own sake: Seeking feedback need not be explicit. Listening & observing properly itself are great feedback tools. Not many people shall be willing to give a direct and an honest feedback, especially when you are not their son & daughter, husband or wife. Amidst such indirect situations there are usually two ways to get feedback: a. Just observe to understand the non-verbal feedback like body language, acceptance of your words, effect of your ideas, behaviour of people towards vis-a-vis towards other people, casual talks & actions of people etc. b. If you are lucky to get an honest feedback then just listen while feedback is given are the only ways. Simply put: just follow Marshall Goldsmith advice: “Shut up and say Thank You”. 4) Behaviour follows emotions (Not the other way round): Study done by Baumeister indicated that behaviour pursues emotional outcomes. That means emotion does not directly cause a behavioural outcome. People have emotions only for the matters or things that hold some value to them. Behaviour is simply aimed at bringing a change in emotional outcomes. Recommendations for an HR Professional to get better results from Assessment Tests: 1) Use Assessment Centres: Assessment Centre represents a system or a process through which information is collected about people who participate in different data collecting exersizes. Assessment Centers usually are: a. conducted under controlled conditions, b. have multi-method exersizes, c. have multiple assessors, d. have multiple rating systems e. Most importantly, Assessment Centers have a target Competency set in mind which it tries to capture in candidates during their assessment, i.e. Assessment Centre cannot measure everything and anything at all points of time. Research has shown that Assessment Centres have considerable Validity (Thornton, G. C. III, & Rupp, D. E. (2003)) and also Assessment Centres are found to be best tool available for identification of development needs. (Thornton, G. C. III, & Rupp, D. E. (2006)) 2) Psychological assessments are assessments only: An assessment test is not an accurate predictor and therefore it should be used only to complement information for making decisions like promotion, transfer, job assignment, etc.

Too much reliance on assessment tests may lead to: a. inaccurate decisions that are not in touch with reality, b. may not consider context & conditions during which test was taken, c. may not consider constraints of candidate while taking test, d. may lead to underestimating experience of the candidates, e. may lead to underestimating potential of the candidates, f. may be used as tool for justifying unjustified actions against participants. 3) Design of Assessment Test should be based on Evidence: A 2008 study (Silzer, Cober, Erickson, & Robinson) of HR practitioners indicated that Research or Science is ahead of Practice only in 2 content areas which are a) Measurement with statistics, b) Job Analysis. In remaining 14 areas like Talent Management, Employee Relations, Coaching etc. Practices were ahead of Science. In other 5 areas of recruitment, training & development, performance management system, organizational culture and employee engagement activities completely opposite views were held of whether science was ahead of practice or practice was ahead of science. This has a very big implication for HR professionals that whenever any assessment test is administered we have to be sure of not only its scientific validity as well as reliability but of its very its scientific basis. The most prudent solution shall be to follow an evidence based system which partially fulfils criteria of practice followed based on data as well as based on principle of causality of science. To be more precise; “Evidence-based management is about making decisions through the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of four sources of information: practitioner expertise and judgment, evidence from the local context, a critical evaluation of the best available research evidence, and the perspectives of those people who might be affected by the decision.” (Briner, R. B., Denyer, D., & Rousseau, D. M. (2009)) 4) More peer assessments: The individual self-assessments shall always have this limiting factor of rating self more or less than what reality indicates. This issue can be addressed by administering a peer-assessment test, where an individual is rated by his peers, subordinates, clients, superiors etc. by the way of 360 degree feedback. People are subjective about matters pertaining to self since they are emotionally biased, but same people are usually more objective about matters pertaining to others since they are not biased in other’s affairs. Some benefits of peer-rated assessments: a. It is about perception of an individual in eyes of others, which is an important reality at any workplace. b. It gives data on soft skills from multiple perspectives. c. Evidence collected is from more than one source. d. Digressing, but peer pressure can help change a person. Conclusion: So How to be better attuned: In majority of assessment tests idealized choices made by people doesn’t actually predict future course of action. Statements like ‘I want to be close to people’, ‘I want others to include me in their plans’, ‘I start what I finish’, ‘People think of only themselves’, ‘Family is important to me’, ‘when confronted with difficult situation I tend to do as follows’ etc. are leading statements where the subject has great difficulties in remembering what he actually does versus what he ought to be doing. In his strive to be a better person subject invariably will choose some idealized options and thereby set stage towards generation of biased reports. These results have implications for many Psychological Assessment Instruments where majority of questions are easily identifiable as idealized value system or indicator of what a person strive to be. This creates an immense confusion for HR recruitment test systems as well as Development Centres. One could rely on getting validated predictability through assessment centres or recruitment assessments whereas our review and experiments indicates that the predictability of probable behaviour especially under crisis is very much a mirage in itself. And even more disturbing thought is that this false idealized value sets are not created out of suppression of facts but out of sheer deeply set ignorance. There seems a link between value systems of an individual with corresponding situations.

The values displayed by behaviour in any situation are best argued as display of distinctiveness of emotions in neutral state vs emotions in state of acute distress. As argued by researchers, in both cases behavior is pursuing emotion rather than emotion directly causing behavior. But the urgent desire to escape from current, acute emotional distress can encourage people to take foolish risks and ignore distal costs, with harmful and destructive results. Acute emotional misery may produce a short-term focus, so as to feel better now. In contrast, making decisions in a relatively dispassionate, neutral state so as to maximize long-term positive emotional outcomes seems more likely to yield desirable results. (Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, C. Nathan DeWall and Liqing Zhang (2007)) The very essence of act of escaping acute emotional misery by short term focus explains why an individual shall mark a particular option during any assessment test but then may acts differently when similar situation calls for action. This is what exactly an HR professional has to remember while designing assessment test, while making a selection choice, during making promotions or during firing. Bibliography: Watts Duncan (2011), Everything Is Obvious*: *Once You Know the Answer, Crown Business Malcolm Gladwell, Annals of Psychology, “Personality Plus,” The New Yorker, September 20, 2004, p. 42 Kluckhohn, Clyde (1951). "Values and value-orientations in the theory of action: An exploration in definition and classification." In T. Parsons & E. Shils (Eds.), Toward a general theory of action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press Rokeach, M. (1968).

Beliefs, attitudes, and values: A theory of organization and change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Rokeach, M. (1973). The Nature of Human Values. New York: The Free Press Schwartz, S.H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, M. Zanna, San Diego: Academic Press Schwartz, S.H. (1994). Beyond individualism/collectivism: New dimensions of values. Individualism and Collectivism: Theory Application and Methods. U. Kim, H.C. Triandis, C. Kagitcibasi, S.C. Choi and G. Yoon, Newbury Park, CA: Sage Williams, R.M. Jr (1979), “Change and stability in values systems: a sociological perspective”, in Rokeach, M. (Ed.), Understanding Human Values, The Free Press, New York, NY, pp. 15-46. Mount, M. K., Judge, T. A., Scullen, S. E., Sytsma, M. R. And Hezlett, S. A. (1998), Trait, Rater And Level Effects In 360-Degree Performance Ratings. Personnel Psychology, 51: 557–576 Conway, J. M., & Huffcutt, A. I. (1997). Psychometric properties of mulitsource performance ratings: A meta-analysis of subordinate, supervisor, peer, and self-ratings. Human Performance, 10, 331-360. Campbell, D. J. & Lee, C. (1988). Self-appraisal in performance evaluation: Development Versus Evaluation. Academy of Management Review, 13, 302-314 Wilson, Timothy (2002). Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge: Belknap Press Persinger, MA, et al. (2010). "The Electromagnetic Induction of Mystical and Altered States Within the Laboratory.", Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research 1 (7): 808–830. Thornton, G. C. III, & Rupp, D. E. (2003). Simulations and assessment centers. In J. C. Thomas (Ed.), & M. Hersen (Series Ed.), Comprehensive handbook of psychological assessment, vol. 4: Industrial and organizational assessment (pp. 318-344). New York: John Wiley & Sons. Thornton, G. C. III, & Rupp, D. E. (2006), “Assessment Centers In Human Resource Management: Strategies For Prediction, Diagnosis, And Development”, Published By Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc. Silzer, R., Cober, R., Erickson, A., & Robinson, G. (2008). “Practitioner needs survey: Final survey report.” SIOP Professional Practice Committee. Retrieved as on 11th April 2011, from Greene, Robert, (2000). “48 laws of power”, Published by Penguin Briner, R. B., Denyer, D., & Rousseau, D. M. (2009). Evidence-based management: Concept clean-up time? Academy of Management Perspectives, 23, 19–32. Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, C. Nathan DeWall and Liqing Zhang (2007), “How Emotion Shapes Behavior: Feedback, Anticipation, and Reflection, Rather Than Direct Causation”, Pers Soc Psychol Rev 2007; 11; 167.

Author: Gaurav Kapil

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